Mystery plays were produced and acted by local trade and craft organisations called guilds. The term mystery play came into use because guilds were sometimes known as masteries or mysteries. The plays were also called Corpus Christi plays because most were presented during the feast of Corpus Christi in late May or June.
Mystery plays dramatised stories from both the Old and New Testaments. Popular subjects included the life of Christ, Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac, and Noah and the Flood.
Many mystery plays combined biblical scenes with references to local places and events. The plays were staged outdoors, probably on large carts called pageant wagons. These wagons were drawn through a town to various places where spectators stood in the street or watched from nearby houses. Each guild in a town was responsible for one episode or play. Mystery plays were presented in cycles of several related dramas. A cycle may have taken one or two days.
Texts of cycles of mystery plays from the towns of Chester, Wakefield, and York have been preserved in the Towneley Manuscript (so called after a family that once owned it), now in the Huntington Library in California.
The plays are sometimes referred to as the Towneley cycle.
The Wakefield cycle probably originated in the late 14th century, when the cycle of plays performed at York was transferred bodily to Wakefield and there established as a Corpus Christi cycle; six of the plays in each are virtually identical, and there are corresponding speeches here and there in others. On the whole, however, each cycle went its own way after the transfer.
From a purely literary point of view, the Wakefield plays are considered superior to any other surviving cycle. In particular, the work of a talented reviser, known as the Wakefield Master, is easily recognisable for its brilliant handling of metre, language, and rhyme, and for its wit and satire.
It is not known how long the cycle, which begins with the fall of Lucifer and ends with the Last Judgment, took in performance: the Chester cycle, which is shorter, was given over three days; the York cycle, which is longer, was given in one. Two plays (about Jacob) are peculiar to the Wakefield cycle, which omits many narratives from the New Testament that are found in all the other surviving cycles.
The cycle is unusual in that two shepherd's plays are given.
For full details of the plays see Everyman with other interludes, including eight miracle plays
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